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Planet Earth (US Version) (Blu-ray)
Discovery Channel / 2007 / 480 Minutes / Rated G
Street Date: July 31, 2007
List Price: $99.95
(Buy it now from the Discovery Channel Store)
Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Friday, August 10, 2007
Editor's Note: This is a review of the US edition of 'Planet Earth,' which is being sold exclusively via the Discovery Channel Store. To read our review of the more widely available BBC version of the series on Blu-ray, click here.
Portions of this review not specific to this release also appear in our reviews of the BBC edition, and in our HD DVD review of this US edition.
The documentary series 'Planet Earth' first hit both next-gen formats back in April 2007, featuring the series as it was originally broadcast on the BBC. Distributed by Warner Home Video, that edition won high praise for both its content and its exceptional video quality, and went on to break high-def sales records (as of this writing, it remains the highest grossing high-def release of all time).
Now, a second version of 'Planet Earth' is debuting on both Blu-ray and HD DVD: the re-edited version that was seen during the series' US television run. This new edition is being released by The Discovery Channel (which aired 'Planet Earth' in the US), although it seems that the cable network's distribution rights to the series are limited to direct sales via its Discovery Channel Store.
Given the huge success of the BBC/Warner next-gen versions of 'Planet Earth,' will the Discovery Channel be able to make lightning strike twice and deliver a domestic version equal to the previously-released BBC edition? Read on...
Seven continents. Five years. A $25 million budget. 'Planet Earth' is an undertaking so epic in scope and idealistic in intent, that it legitimately earns comparisons to to the grandest Hollywood blockbusters. It's the 'Titanic' of television nature documentaries -- a work of great majesty, high ambition and huge financial risk (after all, this isn't a genre known for generating huge profits). That the BBC agreed to back such an enterprise at all is a kind of small miracle.
First airing as an eleven episode series on the BBC, 'Planet Earth' really is huge on every level. The production employed over a dozen of the world's most renowned nature photographers, sent them out to traverse the globe for over 60 months, capturing the planet's most amazing landscapes and creatures in stunning high-definition. Even the title of the series is ballsy -- you don't name your documentary 'Planet Earth' if you're not aspiring to something monumental.
As an example of "pure cinema," 'Planet Earth' definitely succeeds. It simply captivates our eyes with every frame. How some of these sights were even able to be photographed by humans boggles the mind. The filmmakers spent hours -- even days -- attempting to document a single, indelible moment, and the pay-off is often extraordinary. In one of many fantastic moments, a group of baby birds dive off a cliff and take flight for the first time -- such visual images have the energy and excitement of true discovery. It is like witnessing a baby take its first steps, or remembering the first time you tasted ice cream -- 'Planet Earth' is a nature documentary that allows us to revel in the child-like wonder of discovering our world.
Visual brilliance aside, 'Planet Earth' isn't exactly groundbreaking in its use of the documentary form. The narrative approach to the material is standard-issue for a nature series; in fact, there really isn't much of a narrative at all. Instead, 'Planet Earth' is a series of vignettes loosely paced and assembled that certainly provides an eventual narrative foundation for its images, but little more than that. That may be the doc's one weak point, at least in terms of mainstream appeal. Though the subject matter of 'Planet Earth' is of course more far-reaching and ambitious than say a 'March of the Penguins,' it's ultimately not nearly as emotionally satisfying.
Still, 'Planet Earth' is certain to be held up as the high watermark of its genre. Just the sheer scope of the project gives it a majesty rare for a genre usually known for its low budgets and cheesy production values. Finally, be warned -- 'Planet Earth' is highly addictive. No matter which episode you choose, it's always accessible, almost like nature documentary comfort food. I found myself lulled into a near trance-like state of serenity throughout its eleven episode run, and I know this is a series that I will enjoy again and again.
This US edition of the series is different in several ways compared to the previously-released BBC edition. Among the changes made by The Discovery Channel for the US broadcast were a re-sequencing of the series' eleven episodes, a new main music theme, and the replacement of David Attenborough's narration with the decidedly less British actress/conservationist Sigourney Weaver. Most controversially, the Discovery Channel version also excised roughly 6- to 7-minutes of material out of each episode to allow for commercial interruptions. The result is a total runtime of approximately 480 minutes for the domestic version of 'Planet Earth,' versus 530 for the unexpurgated BBC edition.
While none of these revisions substantially change the power of the series (even including the substitution of Weaver for Attenborough -- I found both to be equally effective), the exclusion of nearly an hour's worth of content from this edition for non-creative reasons is a real disappointment, and leaves me no choice but to knock the content score for this edition down a full notch.
As I mentioned in my introduction to this review, the earlier BBC/Warner high-def versions of this title were much ballyhooed for their picture quality. I even went so far as to give them a rare five video rating in my reviews of that edition.
With such high bar already set, I suppose it's inevitable that these Discovery Channel Blu-ray and HD DVD domestic releases would disappoint. Presented in a new 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 encode (compared to the 1080p/VC-1 on the BBC/Warner versions), 'Planet Earth (US Version)' is still a feast for the eyes, but there are a few clear deficiencies to that kept it from reaching the same heights as its previously-released counterpart.
First, the good news. 'Planet Earth' remains the 'Citizen Kane' of shot-on-HD nature documentaries. It was a monumental undertaking, and even in 1080i the material itself is beautiful. Colors are vivid and pure, from brilliant blue skies to lush green foliage to the variety of animal tones and shadings. Hues remain rock solid and stable, with no noise. Detail can be tremendous -- all eleven episodes boast at least one demo-worthy sequence, with my faves being an exploration of the fantastic Lechugilla Caves (filled with breathtaking visuals of crystal formations), to a startling use of time-lapse photography that shows Sequoia trees changing colors through the seasons. But there are many more such moments -- depth and clarity are truly top-tier.
The bad news, however, is twofold. Though evident in the original BBC/Warner releases as well, this US version has a much harder time resolving fine detail in dark scenes, where video noise often runs rampant. Some nighttime sequences look a bit more blurry and flat compared to the rest of the program. Blacks can also appear a bit gray in these scenes, and contrast doesn't have nearly the same pop as the brilliant majority of 'Planet Earth.'
Even more troubling is that Discovery's US edition has more obvious noise and edginess. For example, during the penultimate episode "Earth's Forests," there is a breathtaking scene tracking a redwood all the way from trunk to tree-top. On the BBC/Warner encode, the image is generally solid, with no apparent jaggies. The Discovery version, however, has unfortunate jitter, and some slight pixelization is evident.
Simply put, this 1080i encode is clearly the inferior choice given the source material, and it's certainly enough to knock a full star off the Video rating for the US version. For the complete 'Planet Earth' video experience, the BBC edition remains unmatched.
Regardless of whether you prefer the authoritative David Attenborough or the more soothing tones of Sigourney Weaver, 'Planet Earth's audio is a disappointment. Just as with the BBC next-gen versions, the Discovery Channel only offers a single surround audio track on its Blu-ray and HD DVD versions of 'Planet Earth.' A standard Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix offered here is encoded at a paltry 448kbps, while the optional Dolby 2.0 stereo mix is even a more lowly 192kbps -- hardly the uncompressed or lossless high-res audio that most of us were hoping for.
Having said that, the sound design of 'Planet Earth' is really quite plain, so I have to admit that the lack of a PCM or Dolby TrueHD mix is far from catastrophic in this case. The mix itself largely front heavy -- Sigourney Weaver's narration is again the focal point, and happily it never comes through less than crystal clear. Sound effects are billed as being recorded on location, and dynamics are natural and pleasing. Occasionally, effects do sound flat or "clipped," lacking high-end frequencies or anything approaching deep low bass; however, I have to assume this was inherent to the original recording.
Surround use is minimal, with only slight ambiance throughout. Finally, there is little in the way of impressive score here -- technically it sounds clean, but the volume level seemed bit weak in the mix. And no offense to the series' composers (George Fenton and Sam Watts) but I personally found most of the music forgettable, and largely overwhelmed by the visuals. (Note that the original main theme for the BBC edition of 'Planet Eaerth' has been replaced here by "The Time Has Come," composed by Gabriel Shadid and Tobias Marberger. Otherwise, the rest of score and sound cues remain identical.)
Only adding to the differences between the Discovery Channel and BBC/Warner versions of 'Planet Earth,' Discovery offers a suite of four bonus featurettes (on both the Blu-ray and the HD DVD). Not that they're easy to find -- Discovery hasn't labeled them on the packaging, and they're practically hidden in a far away corner of the first disc. The only way to find them is to start an episode, then bring up the pop-up menu, and then click the "Extras" tab.
Anyway, as for the content itself, there are four vignettes totaling about 35 minutes: "Technology" (6 minutes), "Extremes" (9 minutes), "Danger" (9 minutes) and "Capturing the Moment" (10 minutes). Together, these pieces form a nice, compact little mini-doc, featuring talking head interviews with the main 'Planet Earth' producers, and with each featurette having a concise theme (self-explanatory by their titles). Also included in each featurette are some cool split screen outtakes and "night cam" footage, showing some of the complications the filmmakers faced -- not only due to the terrain and creatures they were trying to photograph, but the HD technology itself.
Though a combined 35 minutes wasn't nearly long enough for me, these four featurettes offer a nice glimpse at the passion and perseverance it took to complete 'Planet Earth.'
(Note that like the previous BBC high-def editions, neither of the Discovery Channel high-def editions include 'Planet Earth – The Future,' a 110-minute bonus feature that was included as a bonus fifth disc on both standard-def DVD Box Sets. Go figure.)
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'Planet Earth' is a staggering documentary -- one ambitious in scope and filled with awe-inspiring imagery. It is also (as proven by the huge sales of the previously-released BBC edition) ideal high-def demo material for any home theater.
This Discovery Channel domestic version of the series ends up being quite different from its next-gen predecessor. On the content side, over 50 minutes worth of content has been snipped, yet a half hour of supplements have been added. And while some may prefer Sigourney Weaver's narration over the BBC's David Attenborough, the video on this edition is clearly inferior to the five star BBC version.
So, which to choose? In my opinion, though the featurettes are a nice bonus, ultimately the raison d'etre of 'Planet Earth' is its stunning visuals, and its content. And with inferior video and a shorn running time,those extras ultimately aren't enough to compensate. To be sure, on its own merits, this is still a fine enough release, but if you're going to invest almost $100 bucks to purchase 'Planet Earth,' the original BBC version still gives the most bang for the buck.
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